Will Criminals Serve 1000-Year Sentences in Mere Hours with Psychoactive Drugs?

As a hot-button topic, the issue of how criminals should be brought to justice incites constant debate and strong feelings at several levels — from the law-makers, to enforcers, to the everyday tax payer and beyond.

So it’s not a stretch to expect a flood of support and criticism in the growing discussion of whether or not time-altering technologies should be brought into the realm of criminal punishment.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache and her team of scholars from the University of Oxford are among some of the experts looking into the future of biotechnology and how it could affect and transform punishment.

One possibility being talked about involves development of drugs that would trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking time is passing much more slowly than it actually is.

“There are a number of [already existing] psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence” in a much shorter amount of time, Roache explained to Aeon magazine.

There’s also the possibility of creating technologies that would allow the human mind to be uploaded onto computers, and speeding up the rate at which it works, so that “uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours” Roache wrote on her blog. She added “this would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time.”

But what exactly does altering a person’s perception of time have to do with punishment?

Some belief certain offenders get away with their crime too easily, even when convicted. “Super criminals” or those who have committed particularly heinous crimes may get a life sentence or capital punishment, but is that really just? Are they actually suffering and paying for their crimes in a way that measures up to their actions?

Some answer those questions with a firm “no” and could argue that using time-altering procedures could serve to possibly even the playing field a little.

Of course there are theological and ethical criticisms against developing and using these technologies as well.

Wherever people stand on the issue however, Roache beliefs it’s important to keep the discussion moving forward.

“To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment. When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us. Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free?” she says. “When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments – the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.”